Protection and Management of Underwater Cultural Heritage

Shipwrecks and underwater ruins have become increasingly accessible. While professional equipment and a high level of training remain necessary to undertake excavations, sites are no longer beyond the reach of treasure hunters. They need therefore protection through practical measures and control. An effective protection requires nevertheless also guidelines and working standards.

Standard Setting

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage is an important legal instrument for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. It aims at ensuring the universal protection of this heritage, the facilitation of State cooperation and the setting of professional standards.

The Annex of the Convention contains the Rules concerning activities directed at underwater cultural heritage. They include practical and directly applicable regulations on the principles to be applied for excavations, on how a project design should be designed, the competence and the qualifications required for persons undertaking activities and conservation and site management.

Operational Site Protection

The protection of archaeological sites under water aims to control damage from human intrusion and environmental factors.

  • Survey and Establishment of Inventories: Survey is essential to any site protection program. It increases knowledge about existing heritage and enables the establishment of an inventory as prerequisite for an effective site protection plan. 
    • List of National Inventories
  • In situ Protection: Before deciding to recover underwater cultural heritage, the UNESCO 2001 Convention recommends considering as a first option the protection of sites in their original location (in situ). This should not be understood as excluding recovery, but as a recommendation to consider it only for scientific reasons that would make a significant contribution to the protection of or knowledge about underwater cultural heritage. 
  • Recovery: Activities directed at underwater cultural heritage should use non-intrusive survey methods in preference to the recovery of objects. If excavation or recovery is however necessary to enable scientific research or the protection of the concerned heritage, the means employed must be as non-destructive as possible and contribute to the preservation of the remains. It is important for recovered underwater cultural heritage to be deposited, conserved and managed in a manner that ensures its long-term preservation. This requires a high standard of conservation works.

  • Long-term Site Protection: Site supervision and the physical protection of sites may dissuade intrusion or damaging of submerged archaeological sites. It may also limit the damage incurred by environmental factors, such as bacteria, shipworms or storms.
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